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The Designated Hitter: a regrettable inevitability

Nov 11, 2009, 10:25 AM EDT

I’m a National League guy and I’ve never been a big fan of the DH. It’s not a superiority thing or an elitist thing — I know that pitchers can’t bat — it’s just a familiarity thing in my case. I’ve watched tons more NL ball than AL ball in my lifetime, I just like it better, and you have as much a chance at talking me out of that position than you do talking the Pope out of Catholicism.

The Philadelphia Daily News’ Bill Conlin hates the DH too — he hates just about everything — but unlike me, he’s ready to surrender:

The American League went from All-Star Game whipping boy and an entity
lacking the NL’s diversity and overall pizzazz to where it is today:
dominant for the simple reason that nine hitters in a lineup are better
than eight.

And where the disparity really kills the National League in the World
Series and in the equally lamentable interleague play is in the No. 9
spot. With their DHs typically power bats of the Matsui, David Ortiz,
Vlad Guerrero stripe, most teams configure their lineups to put speed
and contact at No. 9. A second leadoff hitter, if you will . . .

. . . Once again, I call for the National League to restore the measure of
competitive balance the DH rule has drained from the game since 1973.
It’s not because I like it – although the National League sometimes
reminds me of an auto industry where the automatic transmission was
never invented.

I can’t argue with the underlying logic, and that’s saying something here because I can argue with just about everything Bill Conlin says. But he’s right: it’s not aesthetically pleasing to watch fat, old players who can’t play defense anymore, but there’s no escaping the fact that they’re more effective in the batter’s box than a pitcher.  And while there are other things in play leading to the AL’s competitive advantages — having two teams in the Yankees and Red Sox driving higher payrolls being chief among them — the DH has contributed to that as well.  George Will probably said it best in his book Men at Work:

“The best case for the DH is this: It represents that rarest of
things, the triumph of evidence over ideology. The anti-DH ideology is
that there should be no specialization in baseball, no division of
labor: Everyone should play “the whole game.” That theory is
obliterated by this fact: Specialization is a fact with or without the
DH. Most pitchers only go through the motions at bat.”

I’m almost always going to go with evidence over ideology, but in this case I’ll make an exception.  Personally I hope the NL holds out. Not everything has to be about offense and vive la difference, don’t you know.

But I understand if they cave one day. It may be better for Major League Baseball in the long run, even if it doesn’t make for better baseball form an aesthetic point of view.

  1. Old Gator - Nov 11, 2009 at 6:37 PM

    About the only time George Will would ever sit still for a “triumph of evidence over ideology” is in baseball. Aw, well – even the most politically constipated among us need to give it a rest once in a while.
    Watching the Borg triumph over the Feelies last week reminded me of how dull and brutal designatedhitterball is, and watching the Borg at work – ably abetted by those clueless umpires, especially – reminded me of nothing so much as a late Pleistocene mammoth hunt, what with all those guys carrying clubs. Who wants to watch a bunch of muscle-bound over-the-hill ballplayers dragging their careers to the plate on a pair of gimpy knees? DHs are just a bunch of upper bodies at work. That’s why I love the National League – give me the whole ballplayer any day. You know, like Kirk Gibson.

  2. Ron - Nov 11, 2009 at 6:44 PM

    If you only have 3 players bat, what are you going to do in a bases loaded sitution?
    Ghost runners?

  3. Tom - Nov 11, 2009 at 7:26 PM

    I believe I eliminated the need for running by using nothing but ghosties.

  4. BigBBFan - Nov 11, 2009 at 9:04 PM

    Tom, your little chart really illustrates the old saying that “figures don’t lie, but liers can figure”.

  5. Jason B - Nov 11, 2009 at 11:06 PM

    I think the fairest sense of better would be World Series victories since that’s what fans care about.
    AL: 21
    NL: 15
    Personally I would put the Yankees separately which would then be:
    AL: 15
    NL: 15
    NYY: 6
    Both of those results are statistically consistent with the premise the leagues are equally likely of winning the World Series.
    (a) the world series, and its tiny, once-a-year sample pitting two of the better teams in each league, is a woefully inadequate way of comparing the leagues over time. (b) 21-15 =
    equally likely = DOES NOT COMPUTE. (c) Separating the Yankees out? Wha?? They aren’t in the AL anymore? You can separate out Boston, Toronto, Minnesota, and the ChiSox also, and it will make it appear the NL is *extremely* dominant!

  6. Tom - Nov 11, 2009 at 11:08 PM

    Well, at least I can spell so I’ve got that going for me. But as long as you’re making the accusation, what, precisely, am I lying about?
    There’s nothing about the DH that has made the AL systematically better over its 37 years. In the 70s and early 80s the NL was clearly the better league if you take World Series and All Star games as the measure of “better.” But that was really just a reflection of the fact that the NL was better in the 60s.
    Then toward the early 90s the AL started becoming the overall better league. I don’t think the DH has much to do with it. If it does, it’s a combination of modern free agency and medical/training techniques allowing players to extend their careers better than they once did. Pre-Curt Flood era Jim Thome wouldn’t be in baseball anymore after he fell apart in Philadelphia.

  7. Tom - Nov 11, 2009 at 11:18 PM

    21-15=equally likely does compute. If you pitted the exact same teams against one another 36 times you would get that result 30% of the time, which is more often than you can expect to win in Las Vegas. It doesn’t have to be 18-18 for the assumption to be valid.

    I recognize the fact that World Series victories is a flawed way of looking at it, but name a better one that encompasses the entire period of the DH. The question isn’t “which league is better now?” The answer is the AL, obviously. The question is “is the AL better now because of the DH?” I say that there’s no evidence to support that.

    If you had asked people in 1980 whether the DH had solved the AL’s problems of the past two decades I think the answer would have been no.

    And, yes, separating out the Yankees makes perfect sense. When a team wins 1/4 of all championships they’re not doing it because of what league they’re in, they’re in a league of their own. Murderer’s row didn’t need a DH. From a statistical viewpoint it also invalidates the assumption that all teams are equally likely to win the championship.

  8. Tom - Nov 12, 2009 at 12:27 AM

    In furtherance of lying, one can defend the proposition that the AL has been better over the last 12 years based on interleague play. Overall record AL over NL 1674-1534.

    This result would only happen about a few percent of the time if the leagues were evenly matched (and each game independent of the next). So, it’s completely fair to say that the AL is better than the NL over the last decade. It’s just not relevant to the DH question because if interleague play had existed in the 70s and 80s I think you would have seen the NL beat out the AL in similar fashion.

  9. Simon DelMonte - Nov 12, 2009 at 9:10 AM

    There are enough pitchers who can hit to make me think that there is no reason more don’t, other than choosing to not have them learn to hit.

  10. National - Dec 9, 2009 at 1:31 AM

    The AL is not ever going to do away with the DH. Never, never, ever. And why should it. It gives them a great competitive advantage over the NL in interleague play, the allstar game, and the World Series. AL fans have watched their teams play with the DH long enough that it seems perfectly natural to them. And it is probably more entertaining. If I wanted strategy I would watch a chess match. So not only does the AL get a competive advantage on the field they get to sell a more entertaining product.

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